Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act



On November 16, 1990, President George Bush signed the Act into law. The Act addresses the rights of lineal descendants of Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony with which they are affiliated.

Although not widely discussed by the general public, NAGPRA resonated throughout Native American culture. Without a doubt NAGPRA is a milestone in Native American and European American relations. A significant triumph for Native Americans, NAGPRA is important human rights legislation that permits the living to exercise traditional responsibilities toward the deceased. NAGPRA also rocked the world of American archaeology, forever changing the way we do business (Thomas 1998).

NAGPRA legislation protects Native American graves on federal and tribal lands, recognizes tribal authority over treatment of unmarked graves and prohibits the commercial selling of deceased Native Americans. It also requires an inventory and repatriation of human remains held by the federal government and institutions that receive federal funding. NAGPRA further requires these same institutions to return inappropriately acquired sacred objects and other important communally owned property to proper Native American tribes (Thomas 1998).

NAGPRA requires that all universities and museums receiving federal money must summarize and inventory human remains and objects of cultural patrimony. Once the items have been identified, the museum community is required to consult with appropriate Native American representatives regarding the expeditious return of these funerary objects, sacred material, and items of cultural patrimony (Thomas 1998).



Any museum that fails to comply with the requirements of this Act may be assessed a civil penalty by the Secretary of the Interior.


The amount of a penalty shall be determined by:

  1. the archaeological, historical, or commercial value of the items involved;

  2. the damages suffered, both economic and non-economic, by an aggrieved party, and

  3. the number of violations that have occurred (National Park Service 1993).


If any museum fails to pay an assessment of civil penalty pursuant to a final order of the Secretary that has been issued under subsection (a) and not appealed or after a final judgment has been rendered on appeal of such order, the Attorney General may institute a civil action in district court of the United States to collect the penalty. In such action, the validity and amount of such a penalty shall not be subject to review (National Park Service 1993).


In hearings held pursuant to subsection (a), subpoenas may be issued for the attendance and testimony of witnesses and the production of relevant papers, books, and documents. Witnesses so summoned shall be paid the same fees and mileage that are paid to witnesses in the courts of the United States (National Park Service 1993).

Written by Leah Evans-Janke, Collections Manager, Alfred Bowers Lab of Anthropology, University of Idaho.